Silicon Valley Firms Join Forces on Agricultural Imagery Venture

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SAN FRANCISCO — Two Silicon Valley startups are preparing to launch four digital imagery satellites in 2016 as they begin forming the Landmapper-BC (Broad Coverage) and Landmapper-HD (High Definition) constellations to gather multispectral imagery for agricultural applications.

Aquila Space, the firm responsible for building, launching and operating satellites in the Landmapper constellations, plans to send the first two spacecraft into sun-synchronous orbit Feb. 26 on a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. Aquila Space obtained the launch contract through JSC Glavkosmos, an affiliate of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, that arranges flight opportunities for secondary payloads.

Aquila Space’s partner, Astro Digital, is focusing on imagery processing, storage, distribution and access. Astro Digital is developing software to “make it dead easy to get imagery, regardless of your expertise,” said Bronwyn Agrios, product head at Astro Digital. Aquila Space and Astro Digital are located at NASA Ames Research Park in Moffett Field, California.

On April 17, Astro Digital began advertising the software it is developing for the Landmapper constellations by inviting customers to try using it to search and download imagery captured by the NASA-U.S. Geological Service Landsat moderate-resolution Earth observation satellites. Within the first 24 hours, Astro Digital received 800 orders for the free Landsat imagery, Agrios said.

“The next frontier for space is software,” Agrios said. “No one will be buying imagery anymore. Instead, they will buy satellite data as a subscription service.” With a subscription, customers will have access to processed imagery with data layers specifically targeted to their audiences and fed directly into their online applications, she added.

Bronwyn Agrios
“The next frontier for space is software,” said Bronwyn Agrios, product head at Astro Digital. “No one will be buying imagery anymore. Instead, they will buy satellite data as a subscription service.” Credit: Courtesy of Bronwyn Agrios

Eventually, Aquila Space plans to send eight to 10 satellites into the Landmapper-BC constellation to capture daily, multispectral imagery of the world’s arable land. Those spacecraft, including the two scheduled to launch in February, are six-unit cubesats built by Aquila Space called Corvus-BC, which the firm advertises for $1.5 million on its website. The satellites are designed to capture red, green and near-infrared Earth imagery with a resolution of 22 meters from an altitude of 600 kilometers.

“We have identified niche markets low-cost nanosatellites can satisfy and the biggest one is agricultural monitoring,” said Chris Biddy, Aquila Space founder and chief executive. “We are focusing first on the low-hanging fruit. Everyone is used to Landsat data. So we will provide more of that data.”

Aquila Space determined which Landsat spectral bands were most critical for vegetation monitoring and designed satellite sensors to focus on those bands. People who already use Landsat to monitor agriculture will be able to obtain more frequent updates by combining free Landsat observations with purchased Landmapper data, Biddy said.

Aquila Space also is developing Corvus-HD satellites, 16-unit cubesats mounted with sensors to obtain imagery in the blue, red, green, near-infrared and red edge spectral bands, to populate the Landmapper-HD constellation. On its website, the firm advertises Corvus-HD spacecraft for $2.5 million.

In late 2016, Aquila Space plans to launch the first two satellites into the Landmapper-HD constellation, which ultimately could include as many as 20 satellites to offer weekly coverage of arable land, Biddy said. Aquila Space has not yet announced launch plans for satellites in the Landmapper-HD constellation.

Landmapper-BC and Landmapper-HD
Aquila Space’s Landmapper-BC (left) and Landmapper-HD satellites. Credit: Aquila Space artist’s concepts

“A spatial resolution of 2.5 meters is high enough for precision agriculture applications,” Biddy said. “You can survey smaller fields, test fertilizer application and watering schedules.”

The Landmapper-BC and Landmapper-HD constellations are designed to offer complementary products. “With 22-meter resolution, customers will be able to detect changes or problem areas,” Agrios said. “Then they can use high-resolution imagery to focus on areas of interest.”

In addition to offering customers the ability to subscribe to satellite imagery services, Astro Digital plans to give some customers direct access to the constellation. With direct access, customers would be able to select imagery targets and to determine how frequently to observe those areas, Agrios said.

A key to the partnership’s success will be its ability to provide data to customers quickly, Biddy said. With that goal in mind, each Corvus spacecraft is equipped with a high-speed Ka-band transmitter. Aquila Space is finalizing partnership agreements with companies that already operate ground stations around the world to ensure that the satellite have frequent opportunities to downlink imagery, Biddy said. Aquila Space plans to command the satellites and gather telemetry data from its own ground station at the NASA Ames Research Park.